Random book things: Unemployment reading (Part 1 of 2)

June 24, 2012 at 2:08 pm (Articles / Interviews) (, , )

I recently rejoined the world of the unemployed. On one hand this means constant, visceral anxiety over having no job, and constant, visceral anxiety over the idea of getting a job in the near future (to illustrate the feeling, here’s a Subnormality comic). On the other hand, it means plenty of time for reading.

When you have a dayjob, you just generally assign yourself a little window of reading time before sleeping if you want to get any reading done at all. Unemployment reading is the kind of reading where you eat the book without fear of being too sapped to meet deadlines the next day. You watch the pages fly by, tell yourself to take a break so you can eat and sleep and bathe, realize you don’t have to have such a high standard of bodily maintenance because you have no pressing need to leave the house anyway, and go back to reading.

Here’s what’s been giving me joy over the last month (warning, mild spoilers for everything):

Blindness (Jose Saramago)


Everyone in a (city? Country? The world?) goes blind, except for one woman who has both the advantage and burden of witnessing the ugly of the human race.

I actually started this book last year, but grinded to a halt over Jose Saramago’s spectacular endless sentences (try opening the book to a random page and you get solid brick walls of text). But it’s not just the prose that makes this a challenging read.

This is the sort of ride which puts you through thought exercises like ‘so you’re suddenly blind, and you’re put in a building you’ve never gone to before, and you really have to take a shit, but no one can tell you where the bathroom is, what do you do?’ And ‘what if there’s hundreds of other blind people in that building with you, and there’s only enough food for about half of you?’ And ‘the half with the food are not very pleasant people?’ And ‘by “not very pleasant”, I mean they would probably rape you.’

It’s depressing stuff juxtaposed with some truly beautiful moments (because the uglier the world is, the more beautiful the few, shining, beautiful moments get to be). Most of these moments feature the unnamed woman, who demonstrates the kind of strength it takes to maintain some semblance of humanity, and dignity, after everyone else has accepted wallowing in their own shit.

This book won the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature. And spawned a sequel. And a movie starring the Hulk as the unnamed woman’s husband.

Recommend for reading? Yes, if you have the stomach for a lot of sadness, and a lot of dialogue without quotation marks.

Man’s Search For Meaning (Viktor Frankl)


In retrospect it was probably a bad idea to follow-up Blindness with a book about the holocaust.

Viktor Frankl founded logotherapy, a vintage school of psychology that focuses on human beings finding meaning in their lives. Having a reason to remain alive gets particularly difficult when you’re in a Nazi concentration camp, where Frankl found himself in from 1942 to 1945.

Frankl talks about how human beings, reduced to the nubs of their will, will either draw from previously unknown reserves of will power to keep on trucking, or give up (everyone knew a fellow prisoner had given up when he simply refused to get up in the morning, and started smoking his hoard of cigarettes. This meant he had given up a future for a few happy moments with his smokes).

It’s also an interesting study of what people become in the basest form of society. Frankl refers to Freud who said that human beings are only civilized until you put them in a situation where they face starvation – and then everyone devolves into the hungry animal they really are, and will eat each other. Frank, who did find himself facing starvation, found that some people will eat others, while others will continue trying to help others out. Human nature remains the same, just more pronounced.

What I personally learned from all this was having string was really important. For your shoes. Because you want those shoes closed when you’re digging a trench in freezing temperatures. You could trade those cigarettes for string.

Recommended reading: Yes, for the first-had account of life in a concentration camp. The second half of the book is basically logotherapy 101, so that’s just in case you’re interested in either Frankl or old school-y psychology.

Shadow Ops: Control Point (Myke Cole)


I’d been curious about Shadow Ops: Control Point since I read Myke Cole’s excellent essay about how writers should be like soldiers, but I haven’t been seeing it in local bookstores (eventually got a copy from a Barnes and Noble abroad).

Cole’s thing is that he’s a fantasy buff/soldier (here’s his photo. Never seen a fantasy writer with this much muscle mass before). Accordingly, Control Point puts ye olde shooting-fire-at-goblins type magic through the filter of the American military. Magic is bureaucratized and weaponized. It is given a uniform, a regimen, made to go through boot camp, and swears allegiance to the United States of America (the main characters are American but apparently every government in the world keeps a magic corps).

While the structure of the military is put front and center, Control Point presents a whole gamut of attitudes towards the military and what the military does.

Main character Oscar Britton is coerced into the army’s magic unit against his will, after manifesting Portamancy, a forbidden school of magic. It looks soooort of like this, except without Golden Tiger Claws:

While in magic bootcamp, Oscar meets a shitload of people who have all sorts of feelings about being drafted – some believe the military is a beacon of hope in a world where magic presents a ubiquitous danger, while others see it as oppressive to magic-users. Others see it as a necessary balance of both.

Oscar himself struggles with the two facets of being a soldier – on one hand, he gets to be in a unit with other forbidden magic-users like him, and they get to save people with their powers. On the other hand, they have to kill whoever the military tells them to kill, whether they agree or not. The question that hounds him is whether he stays with the military or makes a break for it (he makes an interesting choice in the end).

Recommended reading: Yup, just to delve into this world’s particular magic system, and what magic implies for the world’s armies, governments, economy and society. The ‘legal schools’ of magic include Pyromancy, Hydromancy, Terramancy, Aeromancy and Physiomancy (ie. healing). The ‘prohibited schools’, which are therefore somewhat cooler, include Portamancy, Negramancy, Necromancy, and summoning elements. My favourite bit of magic is Offensive Physiomancy (also called ‘rending’, but which I’d like to think of as ‘reducing human bodies to Junji Ito monstrosities’).

More to come: Feed (Mira Grant), Warhammer 40K: The Founding, a Gaunt’s Ghosts omnibus (Dan Abnett), Habibi (Craig Thompson).



  1. Random book things: Unemployment reading (Part 2 of 2) « In the Grayworld said,

    […] been unemployed for about a month, and I’ve been using it for reading. The list started here, and continues here (warning, mild spoilers for […]

  2. milan said,

    Fid, I was required to read Blindness for Lit. Frequently, I had to reread the same text block because I’d get lost halfway through. And with a book that shitty (not figuratively) it gets harder and harder to read to the next chapter. Still, it was an interesting read.
    Hmm, the government in that third book only allowed earthbending, airbending, waterbending , and firebending. I thought portomancy had something to do with portalets. Rending sounds like a possible application of bloodbending. Okay I’m out of opinions, shutting up now.

    • inthegrayworld said,

      Yeahhh, that happened a lot to me too o_O. Endless sentences. I was actually really happy when they got their sight back in the ending. Really, really happy.

      And that third book is interesting :D. Portamancy actually has a loooot of useful applications (ie. transport, combat, recon…). Made twice interesting, because a lot of fighting happens either in the human world or magic world. And rending via bloodbending would be…rather awesome actually :D. If they ever make a gritty reboot for Avatar.

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